Obama challenges the nation - and Republicans

The Post's Dan Balz analyzes President Obama's State of the Union address.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 11:58 PM

President Obama and his party may have suffered a historic defeat in November's midterm elections, but in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, he was anything but on the defensive.

His speech was most notable not for the nods he made to the changed political balance or the issues that cost the Democrats control of the House and that shaved their majority in the Senate - although he did do that.

More striking was his effort to frame the coming debates over spending and the role of government in ways that are designed to put Republicans on the defense as the fights begin. It was his latest effort to appeal to the center of the electorate.

The speech was a defense of the active use of government to prepare the country for the long-term challenge of global competitiveness, through spending on education, infrastructure, alternative energy and other projects.

Obama agreed that dealing with the deficit is crucial to ensuring the country's competitive might. But he warned, in essence, that the goal of cutting spending alone should not eclipse the assurance that the U.S. economy remains the strongest in the world.

Although this was a speech long on policy and broad ideas, it was also a calculated political argument, an effort to move the debates that framed the election to a different place.

Obama tried to project a new spirit of bipartisanship. He salted the speech with ideas that Republicans could easily agree with, such as lowering the corporate tax rate, ending earmarks and taking on medical malpractice reform. But there were also many things with which Republicans will take issue.

There was much Obama did not say, or at least said in only the most general terms. His goals sounded concrete; the steps to get there far less so. That leaves open whether his new strategy will produce real cooperation with Republicans, convince voters and others that he really has gotten the message from the midterms or, most crucially, show progress in lowering the unemployment rate.

The speech drew generally polite applause but there appeared to be little energy in the chamber. Perhaps that was because everyone was on good behavior, many seated with someone from the other party or because some of what the president said was non-controversial.

Much has changed since the November elections, and the president took advantage of those changes. His success in the lame-duck session of Congress helped restore some of his political balance and boost his standing. His well-received speech at a memorial service in Tucson after the shootings there put him in an even stronger position. But Obama has yet to consolidate those gains, especially with independent voters.

The shootings that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), also changed the overheated partisan environment. On Tuesday night, Obama sought to capitalize on an atmosphere of lowered voices and greater political civility to again reprise the themes of unity and common purpose that helped him win the White House in 2008.

After two years of hard partisan debate, Obama argued that the voters' decision to produce divided government means there can be progress only through cooperation and compromise between the parties.

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